Did the Media Fail Ron DeSantis?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on the banks of the Rio Grande on June 26, 2023 in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A portrait of a failing presidential candidacy in two brief clips.

Clip one: In which right-wing media is faulted for not being harder on Donald Trump.

Clip two: In which the candidate himself declines to be harder on Donald Trump.

“What the media wants,” DeSantis said, “is they want Republican candidates to just kind of, like, smear [each other]. That’s just not how I roll.”

My head swims with curiosity at which criticisms of Trump Ron DeSantis would categorize as “smears.” To you and I, a “smear” is an allegation of misconduct that’s untrue. To Republican partisans, and therefore to candidates pandering for their votes, a “smear” seems to be any acknowledgment of Trump’s rhetoric, behavior, or persona that Republican partisans would prefer to ignore.

Watching DeSantis grumble about right-wing media being too soft on Trump in one breath and declining his thousandth opportunity to call his opponent unfit for office in the next reminded me of the end of the 2016 primary.

According to Tim Alberta’s book, American Carnage, Ted Cruz celebrated his impressive victory in the Wisconsin primary that year by turning on Sean Hannity’s Fox New show to find Hannity downplaying his achievement and touting how strong Trump looked in the primaries to come. Cruz’s reaction is unprintable here, but he was still fuming—in more measured tones—when he appeared on Fox himself a few days later. You sure do defend Trump a lot, he complained to then-host Bill O’Reilly. 

He was out of the race less than a month later. Per Alberta, Cruz told friends following the death of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes that he could only assume it was Ailes’ dying wish to see Donald Trump elected president.

Cruz 2016 and DeSantis 2024 have a lot in common beyond their employment of Jeff Roe and their shared, yet mistaken, belief that winning Iowa will lead to the nomination. Like Cruz, DeSantis spent most of the campaign pulling his punches with respect to Trump’s character. Like Cruz, DeSantis thought his ideological purity would trump Trump’s charisma among Republican voters. And like Cruz, DeSantis believed right-wing media would rally to his side, not wishing to be led into battle against Democrats by a probably unelectable charlatan.

Like Cruz, DeSantis will almost certainly be out of the race within a month of blaming the press, at least partly, for the failure of his candidacy.

We’ve officially reached the “cope stage” of this grand disappointment. So it seems like a fine time to revisit a question I first asked in April, at the start of the governor’s campaign: Did the media, particularly right-wing media, let Ron DeSantis down?

DeSantis had a clearly defined media strategy when he entered the race. He cold-shouldered mainstream outlets, provided access to friendly right-wing platforms, and engaged in a sort of influencer “arms race” with Donald Trump aimed at dominating the social media conversation on the right.

It was of a piece with his broader campaign strategy to crack Trump’s base by out-populist-ing the populist-in-chief. Shunning the dreaded MSM, sticking to chats with outfits like The Daily Wire, and prioritizing online politics was his way of showing MAGA voters that he shared their contempt for “the enemy of the people” more than Trump did. For all of his invective about the American press, Trump frequently grants reporters from big media an audience. By refusing to do the same, DeSantis was underlining the theme of his campaign: Trump talks the talk of populism but the governor walks the walk.

The problem with that strategy is that it was destined to make an already unsympathetic press corps that much more unsympathetic to him, as Rich Lowry explained in a piece for Politico on Thursday. If it’s true that the press has been less charitable to DeSantis than it might otherwise have been, it’s at least partly his own fault for declaring war on them preemptively.

It’s also his own fault that there just hasn’t been much good news for the media to report, something Lowry also acknowledges. From the glitchy announcement on Elon Musk’s platform to staff turmoil to months of anemic polling to the recent implosion of his super PAC, there’s no avoiding the fact that DeSantis has grossly underperformed expectations. What was America’s political media supposed to say to put a cheery spin on all of that for undecided Republican voters?

Where Lowry and I part ways (I think) is on the question of whether DeSantis deserves the animosity of the press. “The conventional wisdom of left-of-center opinion is that Trump is a rules-defying threat to the American system of government,” he writes. “You’d think that DeSantis would get some sympathy [from the media] based on not being a threat to the republic, and putting his reputation and career on the line to try to stop the man who supposedly is.”

I agree that DeSantis is preferable to Trump, but manufacturing sympathy for one politician because his opponent is worse smells like the sort of thumb-on-the-scale media social engineering that conservatives typically abhor. (Although it does jibe with the New Right philosophy of adapting your enemy’s worst behavior to your own ends.) It also raises the question of how much sympathy would suffice. If the media showed “some” to DeSantis and his polling didn’t budge, should it show more? What if the numbers didn’t move then either? More still?

Is there a point at which a second Trump presidency looks so dangerous that the “mainstream” press should be faulted for not having gone completely in the tank for the governor of Florida? To believe that the media let DeSantis down is to believe that it had some obligation to him that it failed to fulfill. What was that obligation?

I think their obligation was to cover Trump at least as critically as they have the governor, and they’ve done that. Reporting on Trump’s legal jeopardy is voluminous, and the possibility that he might try to consolidate power autocratically in his next term has become a major subplot in campaign coverage. Just today, a story in the New York Times (based, to be fair, on a report drafted by House Democrats) alleges that, as president, Trump did precisely the sort of thing House Republicans want to impeach Joe Biden for.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ own hair-raising illiberal excesses have been mostly ignored. Last week, he declared that on his first day in office he’d fire Jack Smith, the special counsel prosecuting Trump over January 6, yet there’s been no firestorm over it. On Wednesday, the surgeon general of Florida, a man handpicked by DeSantis in order to pander to anti-vax populists, horrified scientists by declaring that mRNA COVID vaccines “are not appropriate for use in human beings.” That’s arguably as irresponsible as anything Trump did as president prior to Election Day 2020, yet it’s barely a footnote in campaign coverage today.

If there’s a criticism to be made of legacy media in how they’ve covered DeSantis 2024, it’s a banal and familiar one: They’ve gotten sucked into horse-race drama instead of focusing on substantive differences between the candidates. It’s not so much that the press refused to show “sympathy” for the governor as that his ongoing organizational struggles and failure to launch among Republican voters were so spectacular that they blinded reporters to everything else about him, good and bad. And perhaps that blinded Republican voters as well.

“Too much horse-race coverage!” is the lament of every presidential cycle in the modern era, though. And it was particularly inevitable, I think, in a race defined by the irresistible drama of a popular young prince trying to wrest control of the kingdom from a powerful monarch. No one much cares how DeSantis’ economic program differs from Trump’s at the margins. Everyone cares whether Goliath might plausibly be slain by a guy running as “Goliath but without the baggage.”

It’s ironic that the mainstream media might ultimately be blamed for covering DeSantis in a too-unflattering light when the whole point of his strategy, at least at first, was to wear their contempt as a badge of honor. I don’t need the MSM, the governor thought, because Republican voters don’t listen to the MSM. They listen to right-wing media, and right-wing media will be in my corner.

Right-wing media was not in his corner, it turned out. Or at least not enough. Did they let him down?

I don’t think they “let him down” so much as he attributed to them a stature they didn’t deserve.

DeSantis had good reason to believe that right-wing outlets might carry his water against Trump. I can’t think of a populist platform online that hasn’t cheered his culture war crusades since 2020, from opposing COVID restrictions to passing “anti-woke” initiatives to harassing Disney. The most influential conservative media conglomerate in the United States, the Murdoch empire, seemed firmly in his corner when rumblings of a presidential candidacy began in earnest in the fall of 2022. Even now, few right-wing platforms have declared the prospect of nominating DeSantis to be a dealbreaker for them the way nominating Nikki Haley would be.

What the governor forgot, or never quite learned, is that there’s really no such thing as “influence” in right-wing media, especially when it comes to Trump. There are many popular broadcasters, some with enormous followings, but influence means more than popularity. It implies an ability to shape opinion.

Right-wing media figures rarely shape opinion. Rather the opposite: The biggest successes in the industry conform their own opinions to those of their audience.

America’s most “influential” right-wing news outlet is surely Fox News. Yet when push came to shove, Fox preferred to spend three-quarters of a billion dollars in defamation damages than risk trying to “influence” its viewers by telling them the truth about the 2020 election. Reflecting the views of the audience was still the shrewder business move, even at a cost as immense as that.

When a figure in the industry does go against the grain, the best he can plausibly hope for is to be politely ignored. Ben Shapiro is one of the most “influential” right-wing online commentators in online right-wing media and, to his credit, began making the case more than a year ago that it’s time to move on from Trump. He endorsed DeSantis before the governor formally entered the race. He’s a rare example of someone who didn’t let fear of, or fealty to, Trump affect his opinion.

But if there’s any evidence that his endorsement has mattered even a little, I don’t know what it is. Since he made it, DeSantis’ support in national polling has essentially been cut in half, and he now trails Trump by more than 50 points.

To fault right-wing outlets for not being in DeSantis’ corner, in other words, is to assume that their being in his corner would have mattered. I don’t think it would have, and members of the industry seem to understand that better than anyone. It’s why Rush Limbaugh, the most “influential” figure in the history of modern conservative media, decided during the Trumpmania of 2016 that nominating the most conservative candidate wasn’t necessarily the most important thing anymore. It’s why Murdoch media quietly began distancing itself from DeSantis as it became clear that he wouldn’t succeed at prying the party from Trump’s grasp. 

It’s one thing to ask right-wing media hosts to take a professional risk and do what’s best for America by opposing Trump if there’s a chance their endorsements will move votes meaningfully. It’s another to ask them to do so when they have every reason to think there’s no chance at all. If Sean Hannity were to back the governor, inviting his viewers to follow his lead instead of Trump’s, he knows who they’ll choose. He’ll have achieved nothing by his courage except handing an opportunity to some lean and hungry up-and-comer in right-wing media to swoop in and woo his audience away by making a spectacle of his own loyalty to Trump. The deference may be cowardly, but it’s not irrational.

The fundamental mistake in DeSantis’ media strategy was believing, at this late date, that there’s any power center on the American right with the political juice to normalize harsh criticism of Trump among Republican voters. When he complains about Fox News hosts and conservative talk radio stars refusing to criticize the former president, he’s indulging the fantasy that the base is still reachable if only some critical mass of “influencers” would simply muster the nerve to speak frankly.

Which is rich, given that DeSantis also still won’t speak perfectly frankly about Trump himself. And ironic, considering how successfully the governor himself had exploited “the relentless subservience of conservative media,” in lobbyist Liam Donovan’s words, until recently.

If you’re keen to blame right-wing media for DeSantis’ failure, you’d do better to point to the culture of catastrophe that the industry has spent decades creating for its consumers. This graph posted by Atlantic writer Derek Thompson caught my eye on Thursday morning:

One can’t help but notice that the right track/wrong track gap began widening as online political commentary took off after 9/11. Partisan outlets on both sides have solidified “a feeling of permacrisis,” in Thompson’s words, which is certainly true of right-wing media. And no one seems better suited to thrive in a politics of permacrisis than Trump—the “American carnage” candidate, the messianic strongman, the law-and-order authoritarian, the demagogue forever warning of the country’s downfall if he isn’t immediately returned to power.

In short, to beat Trump, DeSantis would need a time machine. Some might set the dial on that time machine to eight months ago, to give the governor a do-over on how he should go about attacking his opponent. Some would set it to late 2020, when the fools and cowards of the Republican political and media establishment let Trump’s “rigged election” propaganda “harden into GOP mythology.” Others, like DeSantis himself, might turn it back to the day before Trump was indicted in Manhattan to plead with Alvin Bragg not to give Republican voters cause to view him as some “deep state” martyr whom they’re tribally bound to support.

I’d probably turn the dial back to the early 1990s, though, and try to come up with a clever plan to overhaul or short-circuit the entire “conservative media” project. In hindsight, a culture of perpetual permacrisis could only lead to an appetite among populist voters for a candidate as foul and illiberal as Trump. Or his imitators, like Ron DeSantis.

So, no, I don’t think the media—mainstream or right-wing—bears much direct blame for what will eventually be remembered as the DeSaster.

The governor and his aides bear plenty. The Republican base, afflicted with appalling cultishness, bears most of it. Insofar as the media is culpable, their guilt stems from how they promoted Trump incessantly in 2016. That helped create the conditions for the cult to flourish; now that it has, we’re all forced to live with it.

We should prepare to spend the next few months seeing DeSantis fans and assorted other anti-anti-Trumpers blame the press for his failure, though.

That’s not because (or not just because) the governor’s admirers will be loath to admit their disappointment in him. It’s because partisans desperate for an excuse to stick with this repulsive party even after it’s tripled down on Trump will need a way to exculpate Republican voters for their terrible choice.

Scapegoating the media, Bragg, Biden, someone, anyone among the right’s ideological enemies is that way. I made that point in April, and I stand by it here: Forced to choose between honestly confronting what kind of leader their party craves and contriving a reason that the left is somehow responsible for that craving, hack partisans will choose door No. 2 every time.
Either way, don’t weep for DeSantis when he flames out of the race a few weeks from now. He’s a bad guy, or at least willing to enable bad guys for the sake of his own ambition—which is the curse of this entire movement. He’s just not as bad as the alternative.

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